Hugh Trevor-Roper

Hugh Trevor-Roper is someone whose fame, through 21st century eyes, is difficult to understand. When I arrived in Oxford he was the Regis Professor of Modern History and he gave the first lecture all of us history undergraduates attended - a majestic occcasion in the Examination Schools with everyone wearing gowns. He was the ne plus ultra of establishment figures, Lord Dacre and the largest of accademic fish. Yet despite his Whiggish grandeur he had never written a big book on his specialist period, the Puritan Revolution. Despite some brilliant essays, the definitive work never materialised and he was most famous for his book on the last days in Hitler's bunker which he wrote having been tasked by British Intelligence with finding out what had happened after the cloak of Stalin's secrecy had fallen over those events. He also wrote a book about Sir Edmund Backhouse, a fraud who had lived inside the Forbidden City in Peking - but who was, when all is said and done, a minor historical figure. Yet much is still published about him. The letters between Bernard Berenson, the art historian, and Trevor-Roper were published recently and now there is a biography by Adam Sismam. The letters were fun in parts for their bitchiness and name-dropping but neither profound or revealing except to show a rather unattractive, pompous and cold man who was a good hater.

I saw him striding round Oxford at his zenith. His downfall occurred soon after when the so called Hitler Diaries were 'discovered' and he foolishly took Rupert Murdoch's shilling and authenticated them. I happened, entirely coincidentally, to be reading Speer's memoirs at the time where he said that by 1945 Hitler's handwriting was barely legible. The faximile from the Hitler's diary reproduced in the Sunday Times and perporting to be of that time showed a neat and controlled hand. Even I could smell a rat and Trevor-Roper's reputation never really recovered from the massive publicity that ensued. He became Master of Peterhouse and the autumn of his life was one of disappointments - perhaps as the modern world slipped away from underneath him.

Yet the books keep coming. But I suspect that not many aged under fifty read them.



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